This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 31st January 2020.
In the readings at Mass recently we have had some example of encounters Jesus had with sufferers of leprosy. I can still remember the descriptions my teachers gave of the horrible effects of this dreaded disease. This was something that people could get in biblical times and we were not in any danger of contracting it. It was only when I was older that I learned that leprosy is still a big problem in some parts of the world but it is treatable.
More recently I learned that leprosy was a notable feature in Scotland’s history. Robert The Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306 ‘till 1329, suffered from leprosy. Recent research has discovered that his nose and mouth were distorted by the disease. I’m sure he was not the only one in Scotland to suffer that problem. So why is leprosy so prominent in the Gospels?
Leprosy can be spread by contact so lepers were excluded from normal society. People shunned them and forced them to live apart. Disease and disablement was regarded as a punishment for sin so lepers got little sympathy from normal society. They were sinners after all. This may explain the prominence of lepers in the Gospels. Jesus’ approach to lepers was very different from the norm. We read of Jesus not only curing the lepers but actually touching them. This must have been shocking to the Jewish society he lived in.
The message He was giving was not only that he could release the lepers from a dreaded disease but that he could release them from the terrible sin they carried the blame for. If Jesus could do that for the lepers then he could release all of us from the grip of sin. Jesus, the only sinless man, did not shun the sinner but accepted him and took on the burden of that sin. There is hope for all of us.
A few years ago, on a visit to India, I visited a leper clinic. Lepers came there for treatment. Some who were detected early were cured by medication while others who had suffered some disfigurement were treated surgically. All were cured. Not all went home after their cure. Some had no option but to stay there with the Servite Sisters who run the clinic. There is a small community there who help to keep the clinic running by producing things for sale and maintaining the buildings and grounds.
I met three young girls who had been cured by medication but could not go home. The people in their village would not accept them. This was partly due to fear of leprosy and partly a belief that they were not acceptable, untouchable in a place of a higher caste. I met an older man who has undergone surgery to restore the use of his hands. He put his hands to work in maintaining the clinic grounds. He would not be accepted home either.
A couple of years later I was in a leper community in Liberia. The SMA missionary I was staying with, Fr. Garry Jenkins, had set up a mobile clinic. The clinic visited various villages in turn to check for signs of leprosy in the population. In this village the nurses checked the sufferers and issued their medication. They checked the children for any signs of the disease. There was no sign of rejection here. Everyone seemed happy. I was able to mingle with them as I did in any African village. Shaking hands was not a problem.
I could feel good about myself. I didn’t shun anyone on account of their leprosy. Did that make me a good, tolerant person? I understood the nature of the disease and how it could be cured. I didn’t harbour any prejudice. Time to polish up my halo? Well not quite.
Are there any other people I would shun? Are there people I would rather steer clear of? Not really, other than those who might fall outside ‘acceptable’ society. That could be supporters of a football team I don’t like or a political party I find unacceptable. There could be criminals who have committed terrible crimes that I couldn’t accept. Surely I’m not expected to associate with them?
What about immigrants who come here and don’t speak our language. They keep their own customs and dress differently. They don’t even eat the same kinds of foods that we eat, preferring foods I’ve never seen before and probably wouldn’t like. Would it be a good idea to stay away from people like that?
Then there are people who might look just like me but seem to have a strange way of thinking. They could be nationalists or unionists, leavers or remainers. I wouldn’t expect to get on with people whose ideas are strangely different from mine. What about religion? Some people believe in religions that are at odds with my religion. They may believe in gods I don’t accept. They may believe in the same God that I believe in but they don’t accept that I’m right and they are wrong. Is there any basis for getting on together in that situation?
Jesus accepted the lepers. He associated with them and touched them. I’ve done the same in India and Africa so I must be ok. However, leprosy is not a big problem for me. I don’t have any fear of contracting it. Even if I did, the visitor we had from Lepra, the charity that helps those with leprosy, has assured us that it can be easily cured. No. I’m ok with lepers but I may have substituted my own lepers.
If I really want to follow Jesus and be a real Christian then there is no room for excluding people. To behave like Christ I must accept people with different views, different politics, different religions even different lifestyles and moral values. Being a Christian is about accepting not rejecting. I don’t have to accept their lifestyle, their politics, their customs or their religion but I must accept them as brothers and sisters.
Please note I didn’t say this was going to be easy. Some people will not accept my views, lifestyle, beliefs or religion. They may reject me and shun me but I can’t reject or shun them. Jesus was rejected and crucified by people in His time but in His dying words asked the Father to forgive them. I am expected to take up my cross and follow Him and do my best to bring others to Christ, not reject them. Now I have not painted a rosy picture of Christian life. It does seem hard, if not impossible but help is at hand. I firmly believe that God does not expect us to do the difficult things without help. The Holy Spirit is always around and can enable us to do things we never imagined we could. We only have to ask.